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V. In the Ranks of “Death to the German Occupiers” Partisan Unit

(As Though on a Different Planet)

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To the Forests

The difficult trek until we reached the Rudniki Forest on foot from the place from where we got off the truck lasted two nights. During our march through the swampy area among huge trees the like of which I had never seen in my lifetime, I imagined that each crack in the trunk of a tree like each broken bough leaning to one side or the other were 'predetermined signs' meant to make it easier for the partisans to find their way in this mysterious jungle, which was really the 'source of sustenance' for them.

The voice of Nehemia Endlin, our guide, quickly ended my daydreaming by declaring that we were already getting close to the main guard-post of the camp where 'our' unit was located. To our great satisfaction, it turned out that the guard at the post was none other than our colleague Yankel Kave. He held a sawed-off shotgun in his hand and gave smiling jealous glances at our very impressive weapons and equipment. A second later, he was almost knocked over when inundated with a torrent of hugs and kisses from the newcomers. Our hearts united at this moment and I even was kissed swiftly by Peretz Padisson a former officer in the Ghetto police. Our relations in the Ghetto were not good but this was a time of goodwill. The newcomers symbolized for the 'forest veterans' the home and family existence that they had come from and who knew if or when they would be privileged to ever see either of them again.

The author in the forests of the Partisans

 

For the first two days after we arrived, I could not stop staring, as if to swallow with my eyes everything in the compound of the camp. I went out joyfully in the morning to wash in the water of the Merechanka stream and I visited every dwelling hut, except, of course, for that of the commandant. I was summoned there for a 'getting acquainted meeting' and like all the new fighters I was required to fill out a complex questionnaire, according to the Soviet practice. On the third day my integration into the fighting force began and at first I was assigned to the 'combat unit.'

However, at this point, a surprise awaited me. The partisan, Dovid Sandler, who knew about my broken right ankle in the Ghetto, apparently felt it only correct for humanitarian reasons to reveal this fact to the command staff and as a result my first assignment was cancelled and again, I returned to being a rank and file 'common fighter.' When I objected to this order, veteran experienced partisans advised me to accept the decision, since no one knew what fate had in store. Be that as it may, afterwards, I participated in all kinds of combat and other assignments that required more than once to go on marches of over 35 kilometers and I measured up to the challenge.

No less than the physical effort required to carry out flawlessly what was required of us from a military standpoint, I had to learn how to react to verbal and other insults from our non-Jewish comrades. Most if not all of them arrived in the forest after escaping from German captivity and it was

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there that they were infected with the anti-Semitic virus. In one case, it almost cost me my life.

This is what happened: On one of the first requisition missions I participated in, heavy snow fell and we had to use sleighs that we confiscated from area farmers. In the middle of the journey, it became clear that we made a directional error and we stopped for a few minutes to consult. We took the opportunity to get off the over-crowded sleighs to stretch our legs. When the order to move-on was given and I tried to climb back onto the sleigh, one of the veteran partisans of the unit violently shoved me and in a split second, I found myself futilely chasing after them. Having no choice, I stood in the frozen snow with rifle in hand calling out for help while a snowstorm mixed with the howl of wolves whirled around me. In spite of the hopelessness, it seems that my cries were heard for at some point I felt a hand on my shoulder and I heard, as if in a dream, words of encouragement in Yiddish: “Come with me, you are lucky!” It was the partisan, Leyzer Tzodikov, an acquaintance from the Kovno Ghetto who was the only one of all those on the sleigh who noticed my absence. He demanded that they switch direction and search for me until they located me in the area. At that moment, I found in that act the value of Jewish solidarity but I also learned the lesson that you cannot rely on all your comrades in combat.

In spite of the difficulty in adjusting to the conditions of the partisan forest and the reality in which nearly every day one of our colleagues was killed in skirmishes with the Germans and their Lithuanian allies, I was happy that I was finally able to defend myself with weapon in hand and wreak vengeance on the enemy. Even more so – while a portion of the Jewish fighters, especially those who were members of the communist party or its youth movement Komsomol, had exaggerated expectations concerning the attitude of their fellow non-Jewish partisans and were bitterly disappointed by their anti-Semitic inclinations, we veterans of Mildos 7 who did not share their false hopes to begin with and who nurtured amongst ourselves our Zionist beliefs, were less offended.

However, for very clear reasons, those eleven of us who came from Kibbutz Mildos 7, known in the forest as Shomrim (adapted from the name of their youth group Hashomer Hatzair), were very cautious, like keeping away from fire, not to emphasize our ideological distinctiveness and certainly not to maintain an organizational framework. Amongst ourselves, we continued to develop our close and devoted relationship especially providing mutual help in time of stress. Generally, we kept our meeting with each other on a low key. Likewise, we were very careful not to utter a superfluous word, even in Yiddish, to avoid offense.

Nevertheless at the same time, we tried as much as possible not to deceive and avoid being seen together at the frequently held evening bonfires held in the center of the camp. In the atmosphere of camaraderie that pervaded, two of our fellow members Yankel Kave and Gitta Pogeer stood out with their solo performances of Yiddish and Hebrew songs. I tried my luck by playing tunes of Eretz Yisrael, such as The Beautiful Nights of Canaan on the alto recorder that had

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miraculously been with me since my participation in the student orchestra in Kovno's Hebrew Gymnasium.

Faithful to the tradition of Mildos 7, our comrade Josef Rosin played Russian and Hebrew tunes on his harmonica. Some of them, such as Hey Harmonica and Around the Burning Bonfire, became 'hits' and more than once swept the crowd into dancing a spirited Hora. We also found among our colleagues in arms Jews who did not hide their anger that we sang Hebrew songs.

At a certain point, we developed a very close relationship with our fellow members of Hashomer Hatzair that fought in the ranks of the Vilna units in Rudniki forests. We knew some of them from the time they visited our group in Kovno immediately after the takeover of Vilna by Lithuania in the end of 1939. Most of us, and especially our comrades from Poland like Zvi Brown and Hayim Galeen, heard many and some confidential things about the personality of the head of their Hashomer Hatzair chapter Abba Kovner, who at this moment acted as the real leader of the Vilna units. But, how were we to get to him to have a heart-to-heart talk with the leading personality of the movement.

As it turned out, just as we were anxious to meet with him, he was making every effort to meet with us far from the prying eyes of the slanderers both Jews and non-Jews among them and among us. The hoped for meeting took place sooner than we had thought possible and under circumstances other than we had thought. This is what transpired.

The Dramatic Meeting with Abba Kovner and Its Consequences

One clear day in April 1944, when my friends from Kibbutz Mildos 7 Hayim Galeen, Zvi Brown and I were standing at the main guard post of the unit at the edge of the camp, suddenly a man riding a white horse appeared on the way to the guard post. When he got closer, I was able to make out a pale young man with a black pompadour in a dark uniform, wearing heavy boots armed with a sub-machine gun an old pistol and a map hanging on his belt. For some reason the three of us guessed his identity even before he stated the password. One of us asked him his name and the purpose of his visit in order to inform the officer on duty – and our conjecture proved correct. It really was Abba Kovner in person the commander of the Vilna units that we heard about while we were still in the Kovno Ghetto and whom we had hoped to meet with for a long time.

As we were shaking hands, we presented ourselves as members of Hashomer Hatzair and we were exchanging news about the fate of mutual friends in the Ghettos of Kovno, Vilna, Bialystok and Warsaw. He wanted to know about the attitude towards the Jewish fighters in our group. From the gist of what our guest said, we learned the official reason why Abba Kovner visited our unit. His purpose was actually to meet with us as members of the movement (Hashomer Hatzair) with all that that implied.

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Naturally, we shared the news of this meeting with our members keeping its taking place top-secret. From then on, our relationship with the movement members in the Vilna group became stronger. The designated contact-people were Barukh Goffer, from the Kovno group with Ruczka Korczak and Zelda Tregger from the Vilna group. We got from them for a quick reading a copy of Iggeret L'haver (A Missive to a Member) that Abba Kovner had written in the Rudniki forest in March 1944.

The Missive – Its Contents and its Significance

The 46-page missive included up to date information in Hebrew and Yiddish on the activities of the underground under German occupation in the Vilna Ghetto and other places in Eastern Europe as well as strong condemnation of anti-Semitism even in the partisan controlled forests. In a detailed accounting of the Soviet Union on its hostile attitude toward Zionism, the letter also hinted about the need to organize illegal immigration to Eretz Yisrael from among the remnants who would survive in the areas of Lithuania and Poland. I recall that when the missive reached my hands, I was especially moved by the final words, “Be strong and courageous for battle and for revenge.” It reminded me of our movement's newsletter from 'the good old days' before the war. I also understood very clearly that from the standpoint of the partisan leadership and the representatives of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) in the forest, this was anti-Soviet material that endangered the lives of anyone who touched it. It is no wonder that I felt that I was holding a 'hot potato' in my hands or even a hand grenade with its pin removed.

Therefore, I cannot forget Gitta Pogeer my comrade in arms and in the movement, when she handed this top-secret notebook over to me in the partisan dug out of our unit. She made me swear to return it only to her personally, lest everyone else would devour it. When I was able to get away to the densest part of the forest and started to excitedly read what he had written, it was as though I held in my hands one of the stenciled bulletins from the leadership of Hashomer Hatzair. It seemed that the only missing thing was the opening “To the members of Hashomer Hatzair in the forest, Be Strong!”

I am not embarrassed to admit that even today when I think about it, I feel something like chills up my spine, about the youthful excitement of those years - how cautious we were even when speaking among ourselves about that notebook. We could not deny its existence or the feeling of satisfaction and confidence it inspired among us. For in addition to the image of connecting to the nostalgic past, we received group reinforcement of the 'us' against the 'others' in the inflexible military framework and the alienating reality in the forest that emitted waves of anti-Semitism that could even be fatal!

We were especially encouraged by the sections in the missive that related to the communists and the members of their youth organization, the Komsomol. We now had the

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ability to “know how to answer” their arguments. Even in our unit, we were reluctant to speak to them openly.

They certainly did not reveal the details of their discussions held in the framework of closed cell meetings with the participation of the anti-Semitic commissar. There they covered in utmost secrecy items that affected all of us including carrying out death sentences against Jewish comrades in arms. We now delighted ourselves with the knowledge that we, too, had our own secrets. THE secret that warmed our hearts the most focused on our hoped for vision that was explicitly mentioned in the pages of the letter – Aliya and/or Bricha (Escape) to the Land of Israel.

Only after the letter was passed hand-to-hand with the respect usually reserved for a holy object and returned, as we were required to do, to our Vilna colleagues, were each of us who were privileged to study it and to digest with greater spirit able to evaluate its importance and significance. We found out that Abba Kovner wrote this epistle in Hebrew and Yiddish on forty-six pages of a notebook in the middle of March 1944 when all of us were already in the forest. It was akin to a summary of the platform of the FPO (Fareinigte Partizaner Organization), the United Partisan Organization in the Vilna Ghetto. The FPO for us was somewhat of an enigmatic group about which we had up to that time only fragments of information. But far more important and relevant for our purposes and the section that was most conceptually informative were the lines that provided a kind of ideological manual meant to capture the ranks of the remnants of the Zionist youth among the partisans. The objective was that when the time came the surviving Jewish remnants would join with them to go to Eretz Yisrael – the hope for Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael was the most longed for aspiration that from our earliest youth we hoped to accomplish. As far as I recall, the primary need we saw at this point was to internalize and teach ourselves those sections of the letter that dealt with ideological and moral values that could be attained even in the harsh reality of the partisan forest. We also wanted to share our opinions on the operative directives embodied in the text that related to the reality if and when we would merit to see the day when we would leave the forest.

Truly, our hearts yearned for that day. But, as one who for more than two years was a close-up eyewitness to the vicious murder of most, if not all, of Lithuanian Jewry, we did not delude ourselves that when we would return to our homes, we would find our loved ones there. Even so, there were among us those who in the depths of their hearts secretly nurtured some hopes – in spite of it all, perhaps, maybe? With the state of things being what they were, I was not open to the thought that if I would survive fighting with the partisans, that I would volunteer to continue fighting, as it was clearly stated in one of the chapters of the letter that dealt with what was expected to happen with the arrival of the Red Army.As this was the state of things, I was not open to the suggestion that if I would survive fighting with the partisans, that I would volunteer to continue the battle, as it was implied in one of the chapters of the letter where it

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discussed what was likely to happen with the arrival of the Red Army.

There is no need to add that from the entire spectrum of directives and propositions, whether they were stated resolutely or whether they were hinted at, I was drawn with great enthusiasm to every word in the letter that had any connection with the fulfillment of the dream of Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. Subtle reminders of this subject, such as 'wait for instructions,' we got even in passing conversations that took place with Ruzcka Korczak and Zelda Tregger, members of our organization who were in the Vilna units. It is no surprise that as the days went by and the columns of the Red Army advanced closer to our area, our hopes increased.

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